How The English Major Changed My Life
There are many things in life that shape us, that change us.
It can be experiences of loss, of success, of achievement, of failure. Sometimes, life thrusts its difficulties on us and makes us who we are. Sometimes, our choices make or break us.
I am proud to say that one of the most defining experiences that shaped not only my life, but my outlook for the rest of my life was my almost instinctive and thoughtless choice of the English major.
My story is not unlike many other college students struggling to find their way and to find success, and the actions that took me to that destination
But here’s the thing:
My story is not about action alone, per se. Nor is it about reaching the destination.
My story is about thought, about the mind. How the mind changed my course, adjusted my sails. And just how powerful the mind is in changing our lives, our vantage points. Not the destination in itself, but the roads we choose on the way to the destination.
My story is about how important it is to know how we choose to perceive the world and take every itty-bitty step towards our destinations, whatever those destinations may be.
How My Journey Started
I started off my college career as any student might- confused and uncertain.
My life was not something that I took as seriously as one straight out of college looking for a job. All that mattered to me was that I somehow figure out something that I can make a living out of, something that I would enjoy.
It seems almost a no-brainer that I would end up as an English major. I was always the top of my class in English. I loved reading and writing, and not in the way that the majority of students said they did. I got thrills and rushes from writing, writing essays and formulating analyses and understandings of texts in-depth gave me this rush of passion.
It was as if the makings of the English major ran through my core.
Interestingly, the last thing I expected was to turn to the English department, and it was a long time before I took that route.
But when I did, it flipped my world around with a total 180.
Starting off as a freshman, and before that throughout my high school years, I always felt impassioned about becoming something, becoming someone who could make a difference. I realized from a very young age that I did not want my life to be focused on mainstreaming into a system of jobs and careers that would just pay me to live until I died.
I wanted to do something that would matter.
So, as any teenager, I explored careers. I thought about law, environmental science, medicine. I was smart. I worked hard. I knew I could achieve anything that I wanted to.
It was then I decided I wanted to go into education. And so, with my decision under my belt and my passion driving me forward, I enrolled in my local community college with a full scholarship and began working toward an Associate of Arts in Education.
I took all my needed classes, I did my observation hours, I became the secretary and eventually the President of a prominent student organization on campus.
In my first two years of college, I basically went with the flow and did what I needed to in order to transfer. I had a balance of subjects so it did not ever really bother me to focus on any one subject in particular. I took two math classes, two sciences, two English classes, two histories.
I prided myself in my holistic approach- even though I knew that the university I was transferring to did not have education as a major and I would eventually have to choose a major of focus before applying to the university’s graduate school for education certification.
Most people who transferred to my university- Rutgers University New Brunswick- for a teaching certification usually focused on a Psychology major. I always thought I would either choose Math or English just for the sake of dual certification in a subject matter for all grades, and special education, and then either math or English- whatever I would end up choosing.
The Instinctive Choice
It was when I came to Rutgers and was faced with the decision, I took what was instinctive to me.
I filled my entire first semester with the prerequisite courses for the English major- and with less than two years before graduation, I stuck to that plan almost mindlessly, unaware until my last semester just what impact the English major was having on my mind and heart.
I always thought in the back of my mind that just getting a teaching certification and just, becoming a teacher in a single classroom wouldn’t be my scope of leadership. I had the utmost honor and respect for teachers and the impact they have on society, but I wanted to do something different. I wasn’t quite sure yet, maybe I would pursue a masters degree focusing on education policy or theory, prepare myself for research projects or curriculum development or a board of education job.
Whatever it was, I wanted to have a positive impact on the world and leave my mark, and it wasn’t until I was fully immersed in my coursework in Rutgers at university level that it dawned on me.
I chose the English major not because I understood what it was, never mind that I had no idea how it would change and expand my mind. All I knew was that I loved to read and write, and that I thought I could impact the world with it.
I also thought it would be a good idea to major in English and get a dual certification. But it wasn’t until I experienced it truly that my mind flipped in ways I could have never imagined.
What is an English Major, anyways?
Before I tell you what I discovered, let me do a little defining for you.
You see, there are a lot of people out there who do not understand what exactly the English major does or offers- even I was confused at times, to be very honest- so don’t feel embarrassed I you were just like I was a couple of months ago.
Most people assume that an English major teaches grammar, or the English language. Rarely do people understand that we are taught to read and write and think through literature within its critical contexts- let alone the outreaching thinking skills established beyond those of every English department out there.
Each university will have a different outline of requirements, but for the most part, it will revolve around the same ideas.
Here are some snippets of English Department goals and mission statements from different universities-
“…every English class is rooted in the challenges and pleasures of reading, writing, and thinking…The English major is designed to cultivate both historical understanding and critical skills.” — Rutgers University English Department
“The English Literature Major offers students the opportunity for a focused and comprehensive study of literature written in the English language. The English Literature Major engages students in the range of approaches to literary study that now characterize the field: the historical study of national traditions, literary theory, the study of texts in cultural context, genre studies, and the critical analysis of representations of identity, especially in terms of race, gender, ethnicity, and sexuality. It builds onto the existing English Major a series of requirements that ensure students’ greater immersion in literature, and it foregrounds research.” -University of New Hampshire
“With courses in literature, linguistics, creative writing, rhetoric, and writing, English studiesoffers diverse gateways into the study of language. You’ll develop advanced skills in writing, reading, interpreting, and understanding the cultural place and importance of a wide variety of texts.”– Ball State University
It is interesting, after exploring the English major and experiencing it on my own, to look back on these mission statements see what university English departments have to say of the major.
How the English Major Changed MY Life
My English classes covered information in all of the above areas. I was exposed to literature in the English language across time periods, from people of all backgrounds and nationalities, of people with different opinions and identities.
I was taught not only to read these texts thoughtfully, but also to think about them through different lenses of theory. I was asked to put on idealized hats, to understand texts through different contexts.
I saw what I was reading from different vantage points. I was able to entertain thoughts without accepting them as my own. We would not only look at characters and analyze their place in the story, we would analyze intent.
Once our minds were opened with the tools set through literary theory, there were endless questions we could ask to lead us to accessing the worlds and dimensions of understanding within ever piece of writing.
Some questions I find myself asking subconsciously now include:
- What is the author’s intent?
- What is the narrator’s intent?
- What does that say about them as a people?
- What does that say about the subjectivities of this time period?
- How does that play into political issues of the time?
- How did the author speak for a certain crowd, or against another?
- How did the author express his or her own personal struggles and identity, and highlight core issues that are now discussed centuries later with his or her writing as a lens?
Ultimately, how can I project these ideas that I have and that I receive from these texts, onto my own belief of myself?
It was amazing how just the mere practice of such a skill as reading and writing with the proper theoretical mindset could open your mind to such levels of thinking- and that too, subconsciously as a natural skill, no longer needing effort.
In a way, the skills of analysis and deep reading I learned from my extensive English classes taught me more about life than any of my math or science classes ever could have.
I was allowed to be subjective, I was allowed to be myself, I was allowed to have multiple selves through people who are no longer alive.
I was allowed to look at a piece of text as one would look at a piece of art.
I was enabled and trained to look at life- as it is in all its intricacies, as a work of art. People, places, things, ideas. Myself and others, myself and others as a whole, myself and others as separate entities. Possibilties of existence, things that do exist, things that do not exist. Is it not all just that- life? And is not life itself the most intricate work of art?
Nevermind my writing skills and analytical skills, these are skills that anyone can have going into any major, and can be easily honed by the regularity of reading and writing in this major.
What the English Major truly did for me- how it really changed my life was that it changed my world view.
I had Chaucer by my side when I look at religious atrocities happening around me. I had Woolf’s diaries giving me solace when I was awake at night, figuring out what each star in the sky means to me. I was able to analyze the way people acted through the deep readings of the characters of Wilde, of Morrison.
Endless authors and their artful shaping of characters and worlds within their texts opened up my mind to see the world beyond the words and actions of everyday life.
Some may render this extensiveness of thought as overthinking. What I consider it to be, is enlightenment.
I guess you could say I finally knew how to think. It was as if my mind was finally opened- by opening and accessing the minds of others. And as I could finally look at the world with an open mind, I had no more qualms of where I was going or how.
I just knew that I would find my way through the intricacies of every step towards my destination.
I realized that I did not need a teaching certification, nor did I need to spend endless years at a university to gain a degree as a license to knowledge, to get a “job” or career to simply stay alive.
I wanted to impact the world — all I needed now was to utilize this skill of critical thinking, of expression, of writing, of understanding. Of reaching out to the world and leaving my mark, as so many others did before me even if just through thought and theory.
I learned how to think, I learned how to know and understand. And with this tool, almost any path that I chose could impact the world with the new lens I had on my eyes. Or rather, the lack of a veil preventing me from properly seeing. There was no need anymore to limit myself to any field or track, there were endless possibilities.
Once the mind is open, there is no holding back, no limits as to how I could impact the world with a new-found enlightenment. There was nothing I could set my mind to without succeeding.
My destination was to impact the world. Granted, there were many ways to do so. But the path I stumbled upon through my subconscious passions was the most beneficial to the long-term goal and its quality and success in the end.
I finally knew how I wanted to impact the world in the purest, most authentic way.
My “college degrees” would not define me- the skills they provided me, the mind and thinking skills I now developed, would chart my future goals.
My success was not where I had been, but the uncharted lands I had the potential to traverse with my mind’s tool belt rearing to go.
All because I finally learned how to think.
And that infinitely folded depth gave me a vantage point from the stars- to infinity and beyond.